5 Facts About Eating Disorders You Probably Don’t Know
If you don't know someone with an eating disorder, or have one yourself, it's easy to think of it as mostly the stuff of teary Lifetime movies and bad jokes about way-too-thin models. It's a topic that many of us feel we know enough about. But here's something you may not know: Disorders like bulimia, anorexia, and binge-eating disorder are deadly (they have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, actually). And even if one hasn't touched your life, they continue to hurt a lot of people, largely because they can be so difficult to treat successfully. The National Association of Anorexia and Associated Disorders says the problems affect up to 24 million Americans.
Which makes this week—National Eating Disorders Awareness Week (February 24 to March 2, 2013)—a great time to shine some light on these problems. So TakePart spoke to the head of the National Eating Disorders Association, Lynn Grefe, to learn more about misconceptions that still persist about these disorders.
Eating disorders are illnesses, not a choice to “be skinny”
"I'm not still convinced everyone knows that eating disorders are illnesses, and they're not lifestyle choices," says Lynn Grefe, president chief executive officer of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA). "It's a generational thing, to some extent. Younger people get that now...that people don't choose to have an eating disorder. But I heard a man say recently—he was over 50—'These young kids they are just trying to be skinny.' "
In fact, anorexia nervosa, perhaps the best-known of the eating disorders, has been classified as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association since 1980. Bulimia is also a recognized eating disorder, as is binge eating disorder. About 20 million American women and 10 million men experience an eating disorder at some time in their life, according to NEDA.
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Eating disorders are treatable, but they can be deadly.
"They're treatable but potentially lethal," Grefe says. "People need to understand that if they're untreated, eating disorders can cause death. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Here you have a treatable mental illness, but people still die."
Anorexia is the most dangerous eating disorder. People with this condition fear gaining weight or becoming "fat." One of the scariest facts about eating disorders are that people may think they're fat even though they are underweight and are resistant to maintaining a normal body weight.
The condition affects between 0.5 percent and one percent of U.S. women. Studies suggest that between five percent and 20 percent of people with the condition will die of complications related to the illness. The probability of death rises the longer a person has the condition.
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Anyone can get an eating disorder
"People think, 'an eating disorder can never happen to us.' In fact, eating disorders affect people of all walks of life, all races, all ethnicities, all economic groups, all religions," Grefe says. "We've brought eating disorders out in the public, generally. But in the Hispanic and African-American communities, not so. There is real denial. People say, 'We don't have eating disorders in our group.' They are much more reluctant to admit it."
Eating disorders occur in higher rates among whites. It's difficult to know the prevalence of these disorders in various racial or ethnic group, says Grefe, because statistics are based on those who go for help. But some smaller studies show that illnesses like anorexia and bulimia and binge-eating disorder occur in every group. And calls to NEDA's help line confirm that, she adds.
People used to think that eating disorders only occurred in women, but it's now well-documented that men can develop the illness too.
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You can't tell someone has an eating disorder by looking at them.
While anorexia can cause serious weight loss, other eating disorders may not affect body weight. "If you have bulimia or binge-eating disorder it doesn't mean you're going to be skinny," Grefe says. "Don't have preconceived ideas" about what people with eating disorders look like, she says.
People with binge-eating disorder, in fact, may be overweight. Binge-eating disorder will be added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) later in 2013, when the fifth edition of the book is published by the American Psychiatric Association. Binge-eating disorder is described as frequent episodes of eating large quantities of food in short periods of time. This behavior is described as out-of-control eating. People often feel depressed and ashamed.
This condition is thought to affect from one percent to five percent of the general population. About 40 percent of people with binge-eating disorder are men.
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Jokes about body size and eating habits hurt people with these disorders
Too often people miss opportunities to help people struggling with eating disorders by making light of eating habits and body-weight issues, Grefe says. "Every one of us, with kindness and support, can steer people to help," she explains. "We need to stop cracking jokes about body size. People with eating disorders need help, not jokes."
She refers to the kind of thoughtless remark that normal-weight or overweight people sometimes make when they pat their belly and say, "I could use an eating disorder for about a week." "I say, 'Really? You would like to have a mental illness?' " Grefe says. "There is nothing funny about eating disorders. We all need to stop talking about our sizes and being critical about sizes. Don't discriminate against people about their sizes. Jokes about weight and obesity make people more vulnerable to going on unhealthy diets and laxative abuse. Nobody is solving anything at all by joking about it."
To find out how you can help raise awareness about eating disorders or to learn more, go the NEDA’s site.